In the final part of our transcription of the ‘Life Post-PhD’ roundtable discussion that took place at the RMA Research Students’ Conference in January at the University of Bristol, Dr David Trippett (Lecturer at the University of Bristol) discusses the post-doctoral experience, offering advice on overcoming the challenges of the academic job market and tips for self-promotion.
In a sense, I bring this discussion full circle back to academic matters because my experience has been principally in research. I would echo the points we’ve just heard that it’s important for you to reflect on your priorities. An academic career isn’t for everybody. Equally, you wouldn’t be here if you weren’t already thinking about what the next step is going to mean for you and how to take it. The first thing I’d say is be ambitious and be bold in your thinking. If you want to stay in an academic career, you need to pursue it actively. In this climate of STEM subjects and vocational training, don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for researching in the humanities; a future society could have all the material prosperity in the world, but it will have no meaning without the continued growth of the humanities and the intellectual skills vested therein.
If you don’t plan to stay in Academia, there are plenty of other options, as you’ve heard, some of which are quite closely related to the skills that you have already been developing, e.g. working for a publisher, as a research assistant for an academic, in library sciences, for the Grove Dictionary/Oxford Music Online etc. But I’d like to talk principally about research careers because a number of you indicated you’re doing that, and I think I can speak best to that.
My PhD at Harvard involved teaching undergraduate courses as well as research, which is valuable on the job market. Do aim to teach at least one course while doing your PhD. I made various applications in my final year for postdocs, accepting a Junior Research Fellowship at Christ’s College, Cambridge. It was quite a luxurious thing – four years of funding to do your research without any requirement for teaching. I interrupted that after two years to take up a full-time lectureship at Cambridge University, which was a fixed-term, two-year contract. Thereafter, I came to Bristol on a permanent contract.
Postdocs are a great opportunity for you to ‘decompress’ after the PhD and widen your set of research specialisms. It’s hard to get a job in academia now without at least two areas of specialism. Partly that’s to do with teaching needs within individual departments, but it’s also to do with a sense of your own intellectual breadth. A postdoc offers you the chance to explore and publish beyond the field of your doctorate. What you can’t do when you’re making applications for postdocs is to give an indication that you’re simply going to turn your PhD into a book, because funding bodies typically want to see that you’re building on past research by moving onto a new project. In this country, Junior Research Fellowships are available by annual competition within Oxbridge. Jobs.ac.uk advertises some of them, as do the Oxford Gazette and Cambridge Reporter, the universities’ own weekly publications (both online). But perhaps the easiest place to find them is on individual College websites. You do need to look closely and regularly at those places to know where you need to apply; consider setting up an RSS feed or a Google Alert. Other options in this country are the British Academy and the Leverhulme early career fellowship. In all of those cases, to be competitive, one really has to have at least one publication. Because you’re going through a British system of a three-year PhD coming straight on the back of one-year taught masters, it’s not necessarily normal to have any publications out by the time you graduate; far from it. It can be extremely beneficial to you, for your competitiveness on the market, but also because it puts you through the process of peer review. You experience a particular sense of self-scrutiny by submitting your work for anonymous critical reports by senior colleagues in the field, and that can help you hone your future research proposals.
There are postdoc positions in other European countries and in America. The Deutsche Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD) will offer you full-paid postdoctoral positions at German universities. It’s a generous deal (stipend + fees + health insurance) and the application deadline tends to be in early November. There are other funding bodies to take you to different countries. In America, most of the Ivy League universities have their own society of fellows, for example Colombia, Princeton and Harvard all pay handsome stipends: something in the order of $70,000 a year, and it’s a three- or four-year appointment. There is a difference, though, between these postdocs that fund pure research and those that incorporate teaching. In the latter you are paid, in effect, two-thirds of a starting academic salary, and you’re required to teach about half a normal teaching load. In many research universities a normal teaching load in semesters is 2+2 or thereabouts. The New Faculty Fellows programme run by the American Council of Learned Scholars (ACLS) would be one example of this kind of appointment.
When you’re making a funding application for research there are three questions you have to ask yourself: why does this research need to be done; why am I the person to do it; and why is now the right time to do it? When you’re preparing a competitive application, it’s important to answer these questions, and, when you have a good draft, to revise and revise and revise. When you’ve polished the proposal, and you think it’s ready, put it aside for a few days, then come back to it and keep going. Empathy is important here. Imagine your application lands on someone’s desk at 1.41am and they’ve got a big pile to get through before going to bed, and being woken by their baby at 6am! So be crystal clear in the claims you’re making, the problems you’re posing, and the solutions you suspect you’ll be able to offer – and also why it’s important! As I said at the beginning, be bold in your research. Your passion for what you do and your ambition for where it’s going to be valued in society or within the scholarly community is something that will drive you and sustain you when things become difficult, so hold on to that and use it. Convert it into an exciting research agenda. On a practical matter, all of the applications require research statements of slightly different lengths: usually between 750-2000 words. You can have one research statement and continually revise and adjust as you need it. I would advise that you do this in the last year of your PhD because you need to dovetail your applications with finishing up the research (and ideally there will be no gap between PhD and postdoc appointment).
I mention that it’s important to publish. The advice we’ve heard from other panellists is true: publications are not the be all and end all. I think there’s a healthy balance. Evaluating research proposals and funding applications does at some level come down to metrics. If you received, say, a thousand applicants for two positions – as some funding bodies will – cutting out all of the people who don’t have any publications makes life a lot easier. So there’s a very banal sense in which it’s important. When considering where to submit your first article, I would say place it in the highest and most visible journal possible. If you’re made an offer by a publisher, as can sometimes happen, discuss it with your advisor. It may be a good offer, but equally if it is a one-time publication – without a web presence or e-resource component – the work risks disappearing into the ivory tower for evermore. It’s better to be ambitious and send your work to the very best journal you can. If it gets rejected, that’s life. Everybody gets rejected at some point. Be thick-skinned about it. After taking on board the useful comments from readers, get the thing out the door again. The mantra is: ‘recycle, revise, and resubmit’.
For any academic, but particularly for postdocs, conferences are useful venues to meet others working in your field. I think ‘networking’ is a strange word in that it can mean lots of different things to different people. Why network? One reason, I think, is that we want to be able to share our work with a broader community of people. We don’t necessarily want to be an anonymous voice. Presenting your work at conferences is really important in this respect. If you find yourself in limbo between PhD and postdoc, put in proposals because the more you meet people, the more connections you will make. It’s very hard to know how and where they might help you but it’s important to begin to embed yourself in the web of scholars that make up the disciplines within which you work.
Speaking about becoming known, the comment we heard earlier about websites is an interesting one. If you compare yourself to performing musicians of your age, they all have websites – partly because they need to share sound examples. All universities host profile pages for each academic, and some have personal sites in addition. One of the first things that you know will happen when you make applications – this applies principally to job applications rather than funding applications – is that your search committee will search for you online. I went down the route of putting up a website because it allows you to control your content. To speak from a marketing perspective, when you go on the job market or apply for funding, you’re presenting yourself as a brand, in a way. I think you need to be aware of how you’re perceived. If you can present yourself in such a way that search engines find you first when people search for your research topic (because of the metadata on your site), they also find your name, which can help you a lot.
One point to consider is the relative value of a job: a university job versus a postdoc. We’ve heard already that the job market is static, perhaps even shrinking in the field of academic music studies. It’s certainly changing, and you need to keep abreast of how these changes manifest themselves. Whether jobs in sound studies, soundscapes or media technology are going to grow; whether it’s pop music and whether in fact traditional jobs in ‘renaissance studies’, medieval studies or traditional nineteenth-century jobs will be replaced when staff retire is something to consider. Ultimately, we can’t really be certain, and one has to make oneself as available as possible by being as broad as possible in scholarly interests. The relative value of a postdoc against an academic job will depend on individual circumstances. If you’re someone who’s confident that you will be able to find the right kind of employment in an academic university, then postdoc is perfectly safe. It’s a great opportunity for writing other materials. But a permanent or tenure-track job is worth more than a postdoc, and there may not be jobs available in your field every year. In fact, there almost certainly won’t be. In some cases it might be four or five years before something suitable comes up, so, especially if you’re geographically limited and if in doubt, I would say take a job with a better university if that comes up.
To round up, I would say follow your instincts and your passion for research. It you want to remain in academia, be single-minded and be bold. Do revise research proposals thoroughly. Show them to colleagues, show them to your advisor, and stick with it. It can be tough but rest assured that everybody who’s travelled down this path will have received rejections of one sort or another. And ultimately, a career in research is very rewarding.